Ski, snowboard traffic picking up at Sunlight Mountain

A couple of skiers ride the chairlift up Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Saturday, 9:45ish a.m.

Even the backup parking lot is nearing capacity. Casual conversations and giggles of happy children are sharply permeating the crisp air.

Sunlight Mountain Resort worker Jaramie Smith is busy directing traffic like it’s a Metallica concert. He helps push a small sedan stuck in the snow with a coworker, then goes back to playing mountain marshaller.

“We’ve just had good turnouts, and it seems like the crowds are pretty happy,” he said. “It’s good snow for the season, ya know? With more people coming up, we’re having more traffic to direct.”

Last weekend, people had to park on the county road leading to the resort. This weekend, for the first time in the alpine oasis’ history (just go with it), lift tickets were sold out. Single-day ticket sales are limited this season due to COVID-19 precautions.

“That’s a banner I thought I’d never make — those sold-out banners,” Marketing and Sales Director Troy Hawks said. “And I’m probably going to keep one as a souvenir, to be honest with you.”

A skier tows his daughter at Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Sunlight hit 1,600 ticket sales last weekend. This President’s Day weekend, Hawks said he anticipated anywhere from 1,200 and 1,600 in sales, with 1,500 passes being the sweet spot.

By 11:40ish a.m., good luck trying to find a parking space.

What the heck is going on?

Garfield and Pitkin counties are seeing downward trends in COVID-19 cases. And, as of Saturday morning, restaurants up and down the Roaring Fork Valley were officially operating at level yellow on the Colorado COVID-19 dial.

Overcast never felt so great. Fresh “pow!”

Pitchers of beer occupy picnic table tops near Sunlight’s base. Room on the ski racks is scarce. The site of an empty seat on the uphill chairlifts is uncommon.

A full ski and snowboard rack at Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Hawks said it’s the culture at it’s finest.

“It’s just an old-school powder day,” he said. “You have people cheering from the lift and people hitting powder shots underneath.”

This actually puts Hawks and the Sunlight Mountain crew in a bit of a tough spot. How do you maximize business while still trying to maintain social distancing?

Logistically, Hawks said he has to factor in how many season-pass holders will show up, how many hotel and Sunny ski packages there actually are and how many people will come up the mountain for a day pass.

Colorado problems…

“So, it’s a little bit of an experiment to hit that fine number,” Hawks said. “You don’t want to under sell, you don’t want to over sell.”

Hawks said Sunlight is capable of catering to the rush, but last weekend’s parking situation was a bit of a stretch.

“With people parking way down the road, we are kind of outgrowing our volume there on that end of things, so we definitely encourage people to carpool as much as possible,” he said.

A secondary parking lot at Sunlight Mountain loaded with vehicles Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

It seems like people from coast-to-coast are starting to wake up from this COVID-19 coma and are out for blood.

“They are literally coming from around the country, and we do get some foreign visitation as well,” Hawks said. “But a lot of Texas — Texas has shown up in force. California has shown up really strong this year.”

“We’re still working on our data collection,” Hawks added. “One of my collection tools is just going to the parking lot and noting where the license plates are from.”

Kim Viera had just flown in with her family from Tampa Bay, Florida. She stood, one foot in a snowboard binding, with her husband near the base area.

With package rates pretty much double the price elsewhere, Viera said, “There’s just nowhere else to go.”

“With the pack and the deals, we ski for, like, $45 a day, versus $180, $200 at Steamboat,” she said. “It’s way better out here.”

A snowboarder washes his way down to the base of Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Viera also said she likes the fact she can go enjoy some of Glenwood Springs’ most treasured amenities.

“I like the fact that it has the slopes and the hot springs,” she said. “And it is a fraction of the cost of the stupid tourist areas.”

Viera described the atmosphere of Sunlight on Saturday morning.

“Energetic but kind of chill, too,” she said. “Everyone’s just so nice. Everyone’s just, like, ‘Whatever, not a big deal.’ It’s cool … I like it.”

Waiting in one of the lift lines, Salida resident Daniel Brown said he came to Sunlight to beat the President’s Day weekend rush encountered elsewhere.

“It’s not as crazy as a normal President’s Day weekend could be,” he said. Brown’s been skiing for 17 years.

“On average, it can be a complete zoo. Generally, honestly, I try to not ski President’s Day weekend. We usually ski back country or something and stay away from the resorts.”

But the fresh powder and the agreeable weather drew Brown from his typical Monarch Mountain mainstay.

“It looks better than it was yesterday,” he said of the snow. “It’s pretty nice, honestly. It’s not like crazy cold and windy. There’s better coverage than what it looked like yesterday. Hopefully this cycle pulls some things together and helps the snowpack for the rest of the season.”

Riders on a chairlift at Sunlight Mountain acknowledge the camera Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

For Hawks, he said he wouldn’t have guessed traffic would get this significant, especially if you asked him back in summer and fall 2020.

With about 48 days left in the season, he said the future is bright for Sunlight Mountain.

“Not counting any chickens before they hatch necessarily, but if we can see ourselves through to the end of the season, we’ll come off of here with a pretty profitable year,” Hawks said. “And that just bodes well with making future improvements here at the mountain.”

Sunlight has approvals from the U.S. Forest Service to build a new chair lift serving the East Ridge, and has been working for the past two years to cut new skiable terrain on the eastern pitch.

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